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4:16 AM 17th July 2021
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Opinion

Feature: We’ve Been At The Sharp End Of Levelling Up For 40 Years

We know what the UK government means when they say ‘levelling up’. Levelling up doesn’t need to be confusing. The fact is, you can’t level up without business, and it won’t happen overnight according to Amanda Mackenzie OBE (CEO at Business in the Community).

Credit: BITC
Credit: BITC
On the day I was born, my dad was down a colliery, bringing urgent treatment to miners in West Yorkshire. His selfless actions are a tangible example of how we can help others by getting stuck in. Businesses need to follow his lead and understand that levelling up is about embracing work at the sharp end. It is about the long-term investment by businesses to help struggling places thrive in the years to come. It is a complex mix, but certainly not rocket science, of improving access to good jobs and education, digital and transport infrastructure, housing and healthcare, and climate change resilience, to name a few. Above all it must drive the vision and aspirations of the residents who deserve to feel proud of where they come from.

This means coming together with community leaders, connecting with local councils and appreciating the power of an independent broker to ensure trust. In our experience every community knows what they want; our task is helping them achieve it.

York. Image by Emphyrio from Pixabay
York. Image by Emphyrio from Pixabay
When we talk about levelling up, we can target people or places, but the two work together. Levelling up people looks like work coaching, employment assistance or skills training, whereas levelling up places takes forms like growing the local private sector, building educational facilities and improving infrastructure. The government need to look at how they consider both in a joined-up way; it’s no use building further education colleges if there are no jobs in the local area.
Amanda Mackenzie OBE
Amanda Mackenzie OBE
Amanda Mackenzie OBE has over 25 years of commercial experience, including director roles at British Airways Airmiles, BT and British Gas. She is a non-executive director of Lloyds Banking Group and will soon Chair the responsible business committee. Formerly, she was a member of the steering group for Lord Davies’ review of how to increase the number of women on boards. She is a regular commenter for the media on women’s issues in business, gender equality and domestic abuse and most recently appeared in the Times.

Part of levelling up is empowering the regions across the UK to take control of their own destinies. Business in the Community has created regional boards of local employers with a vested interest in their area, which are in turn convened by a national board. The structure allows us to understand the varying circumstances of places across the country, while allowing us to create and share best practice.

Liverpool. Image by timajo from Pixabay
Liverpool. Image by timajo from Pixabay
Over the past few years, we have learnt that for levelling up to succeed it takes time. Our Business Connectors programme created secondments for business leaders to be on the ground in our communities. They served as a bridge between local issues and how business can help tackle them.

Whilst we cheer the Prime Minister’s commitment and attention to levelling up, this dedication to supporting local areas has been at our heart for forty years. We can offer our experience and expertise to help everyone learn more and achieve the goal more quickly. Since our founding by HRH the Prince of Wales, Business in the Community has focussed on building up towns and cities across the UK by understanding what is needed in communities. We break down siloes between businesses, local government and local people. We work with businesses who understand that you can’t count yourself ‘responsible’ unless you are supporting the communities around you. But sometimes you have to go further still.

Newcastle. Image by 5477687 from Pixabay
Newcastle. Image by 5477687 from Pixabay
You can’t have a healthy high street without a healthy back street. That is levelling up.

Any measures to boost the levelling up agenda have to take into account the unique characteristics of each place. Traditionally, these sorts of policies have had a ‘one size fits all’ mantra at their core, when in reality every place is so different; what excels in County Durham might not pass muster in Cornwall. You can, however, learn from your experiences in places to inform how you approach levelling up. Thanks to our work with the communities in Blackpool, Lowestoft and Wisbech and many more there are four key lessons we’ve learnt.

First, listening is essential. When approaching a place that needs support, businesses’ key role is to listen to the community’s needs and work with its leaders, laying the foundations for plans that will allow the area to grow and thrive over time.

Carlisle. Image by randomwinner from Pixabay
Carlisle. Image by randomwinner from Pixabay
Second, creating transformational change in a place is a long-term endeavour that won’t happen overnight. You must be prepared to commit to planning for at least a 7-year timeframe. You need to take the time to learn about the place, what the underlying problems are and what levers you can pull. For example, in our work in Blackpool, it was only through putting in time on the ground that we learnt the poor educational attainment was rooted in issues with housing.

Third, businesses, government and communities will all have different perspectives, but common goals. Creating a town board of the public, private and voluntary sectors that consults the community to boost local participation is vital to helping a place level up. Delivering quick wins early on creates the trust needed to bring different groups together and generate buy-in. You can then use that momentum to deliver more complicated, impactful projects.

Fourth, having an independent broker is essential when aligning community leaders, local councils and businesses in a common goal. These places can often characterised by fractured relationships between these groups – the very people who must come together to affect change. That is why an independent broker is essential – someone to bash heads together and make things happen. Our Business Connectors programme leveraged £10 for communities from the private sector for every £1 we spent, and that came from collaborating to do what was best for the communities in need.

It’s only when these forces for change come together that the potential for success is immense. In Blackpool, Business in the Community created a ‘Pride of Place’ Board comprised of people who are born and bred in Blackpool. We invested in people on the ground who had huge credibility and who the council wanted to work with. Working together over the past seven years we secured a landmark £39.5m Town Deal; created a business network that supports schools and local employment; and launched the 2030 Digital Vision to improve connectivity and drive economic growth.

Similarly, Lowestoft faced issues with economic transition. Together with the local and East Suffolk councils, Local Enterprise Partnerships and third sector businesses, we helped create a Town Investment Plan and an Ambassador group to sell the Lowestoft story within their networks. Lowestoft received a £24.9 million Town Deal in the Spring 2021 Budget, led by East Suffolk Council in partnership with us. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our work enabled businesses like Kier Utilities, M&S and Morrisons to provide emergency food provision for vulnerable people in Lowestoft.

In Wisbech, a deprived Fens town, with the incredible support of Anglian Water, we helped create a joint vision for change supported by local government, business and community voices. A new technology centre at the local college received a £7.2m investment, where the courses focus on the needs of the local labour market and Anglian Water’s supply chain guarantees interviews for graduates. Wisbech is also the largest English town not connected to a rail network, but, led by the Wisbech 2020 partnership, has now submitted a Full Business Case to Network Rail to reopen the rail line.

We have been calling on businesses for almost forty years to think differently. This tradition gives us a greater understanding of seeing how communities’ needs evolve over time and how businesses can help, which are often triggered by a single conversation.

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay
Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay
Every place has a vision, an aspiration. They know best what will work for them. But greater change can’t happen without people coming together. People say it takes a village, but really it takes a community of local businesses willing to jump in and get their feet wet to make change happen. What I learned from growing up in Yorkshire has stayed with me today, as we continue to make that vision for helping others a reality.

You can’t level up without business, and it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s why when the UK Government talks about levelling up, we understand exactly what they mean, and we’re here ready to help them achieve it.

The story behind the main picture. The Blackpool Pride of Place Partnership has brought together a group of leaders from business, the public sector and the local community to create a ‘Digital Strategy’ for Blackpool. In a world where digital is a key enabler, the Partnership wanted to create a vision, to enable Blackpool to become the smartest and best-connected town in the UK.

Workshops were held to to build a plan for the digital economy to improve the socio-economic outcomes for Blackpool. The workshops explored how to:

Build on Blackpool’s key digital infrastructure so it becomes a catalyst for transformation
Shape Blackpool’s digital narrative as one that develops, nurtures, and attracts employment and industry
Strengthen economic growth Map Blackpool’s digital economy to evolve and thrive post Covid-19
Create better lives.
The 2030 digital vision created was entitled: ‘Riding the digital wave to economic and social prosperity’

Stakeholders from the community, health, transport, education and business, pooled together ideas for the resort’s digital future, with a focus on improving citizen’s digital literacy, supporting tech start-ups and ensuring access to affordable high-speed broadband for all Blackpool residents.

It also seeks to capitalise on the installation of the North Atlantic Loop, a subsea fibre-optic cable connecting the UK to New York and mainland Europe, which landed on Blackpool’s shores in October last year.

In May this year, the Digital Vision was launched through a ‘Digital Takeover’ and now a Steering Group, led by business, is being created to work on delivering the vision’s key themes. We want to energise people and organisations - locally and nationally – to contribute to being a part of digital transformation in Blackpool, using the best of communities, civil society, and the public and private Sectors.